Writing occupies an important place in any English as a second language (ESL) classroom: students are required to do a great deal of writing. But, unless they are given reliable feedback on their writing, the set writing tasks may not help them much in improving their writing skills. Studies (e.g. Yang, Badger & Yu, 2006) have
repeatedly pointed out that students’ writing does not improve as a result of traditional teacher feedback (TF) which is essentially product-oriented. A survey conducted by the Loyola ELT Centre revealed that teachers rarely used the process approach for several reasons, including lack of time and the constraints imposed by an examination-oriented system. The Centre, therefore, looked for an alternative to TF. On an eight-month-long project (‘Towards an Alternative Form of Corrective Feedback in ESL Writing’), led by me as Project Director, the Centre field-tested its hypothesis about the efficacy of peer feedback (PF) as an assessment-for-learning tool (Black et al. 2003), and demonstrated PF as a viable alternative to TF. In this paper, I attempt a brief description of the project.
Advantages of PF
During the past two-and-a-half decades, PF in ESL writing has received a great deal of attention in the literature. Compelling arguments have been advanced in favour of PF, especially about the advantages of PF over traditional TF:
- While PF empowers ESL writers in that there is scope for them to decide whether they can use their peers’ feedback or not (Mendonca & Johnson, 1994), TF tends to appropriate students’ texts and disempower them because it often involves students merely rewriting their texts according to the teacher’s directive feedback (Knoblauch & Brannon, 1984).
- In a TF situation, the students do not write with freedom because they are conscious that their work will be read and corrected by the teacher. This often reduces the writing to an empty exercise giving teachers what they want. But, in a PF situation, the students know that their reader will be a peer, which encourages them to write with a sense of independence and speak in their own voice in their writings. In other words, PF provides the student writers with something they primarily need, namely, audience (Penaflorida, 2002). That, unlike TF, PF is suggestive rather than prescriptive also adds to the student writers’ sense of freedom.
- PF facilitates the linguistic, cognitive and affective development of the students (Rollinson, 2005), and leads to a reduction in writer apprehension and an increase in writer confidence (Chaudron, 1984).
- PF is conducive to assessment for learning, while TF often does not go beyond assessment of learning (Lee, 2009).
- While the teachers’ use of vague and “rubber-stamp” comments and their excessive reliance on grammar correction in TF often leads to negative attitudes on the part of the students towards feedback (Paulus, 1999), PF, which provides the student writers with more individual comments (Lundstrom & Baker, 2009), produces beneficial effects.
- Disadvantages of PF
- However, PF has also produced less than beneficial results in some contexts where the students tend to trust TF rather than PF (Zhang, 1995). While, in some studies, the students have found PF less helpful than TF (Leki, 1991), some others have reported less than profitable results on account of what the teachers perceived to be the peer reviewers’ limited knowledge, experience and language ability (Saito & Fujita, 2004).
The participants in our study were all the 699 students of Stream B of the second-year General English course at Andhra Loyola College (ALC). They were divided into 79 groups of eight or nine students each. The seventy-nine senior students of ALC, with fairly good writing abilities in English, volunteered to work as peer reviewers on the project. Each reviewer was allotted one group of eight or nine students.
Consciousness raising and peer feedback training
To obviate negative results of the kind reported under ‘Disadvantages of PF’ above, we had a consciousness-raising phase in which I held discussions with the teachers of English on the advantages of PF. This helped us set about the task with a shared understanding. The teachers in turn discussed the efficacy of PF with the students with practice activities. The discussion also focused on the reviewers’ role as collaborators rather than correctors.
The consciousness-raising phase was accompanied by a training phase in which I trained the reviewers in correction procedures and oral feedback techniques in workshops where the written corrective feedback sessions focused not just on grammar and vocabulary, as in the case of traditional TF, but on five aspects of writing, namely, content, organization, language (both vocabulary and grammar), spelling and punctuation, as well as the three broad types of comments suggested by Hyland and Hyland (2001), namely, praise, criticism, and suggestion,
with adequate correction activities and a variety of model comments of the three types for the peer reviewers to analyse. In the oral feedback sessions, the reviewers practised oral feedback strategies using models of corrections and comments.
The teachers of English at ALC set a series of writing tasks for the 79 student groups in the regular classrooms. Once the tasks were completed, the teachers handed over the compositions to the 79 peer reviewers who took two days to correct the compositions using the procedures and techniques the Project Director had taught them. Then they met their respective groups of students in an oral feedback session in which they explained the corrections to the students and gave them specific feedback on different aspects of their writing skills (e.g. content, organization) their compositions exemplified. The students redrafted the compositions at home in the light of the feedback, and selective written feedback was given by the reviewers on the redrafted compositions also. The compositions were then returned to the students, but there was no oral feedback session this time.
- Over a period of eight months, the five aspects of the students’ writing skills (viz. content, organization, language [both vocabulary and grammar], spelling and punctuation), as evidenced by their compositions, were assessed on a 10-point scale. The assessment showed that, by and large, there was improvement and that the improvement was incremental.
- The compositions were selectively re-marked by a senior teacher of English. The differences between the teacher marking and the peer marking were insignificant. This negligible difference, which is likely even if the compositions are marked by two experienced teachers, indicates that the peer marking is almost as effective as the teacher marking.
- Though the oral feedback sessions did not display “a myriad of communicative behaviors” (Villamil and de Guerrero, 1996, p 69) involving arguing, justifying and clarifying, they did not threaten to be a one-way street either with the reviewers offering directive feedback. The sessions were lively with the dialogue promising to be collaborative.
- The perceptions of the students about the improvement, if any, in their writing abilities on account of PF were ascertained through a questionnaire survey. The self-perception of the improvements (to a great/some extent) was: 90.6% in content, 70.5 in organization, 81% in language, and 87.5% in spelling and punctuation. I must hasten to add here that what is significant is the students’ perception of their improvement and the incremental improvement evident to the project team; the gains cannot be measured with arithmetical precision.
- In a questionnaire survey, the peer reviewers reported a positive view of the experiment: a vast majority of them (88%) said that the work did not involve any problems at all; 80% of them said that they had had negligible amount of difficulty in finding time for the correction and the oral feedback; 73% claimed that the experiment demanded considerable preparation, thanks to which their own writing abilities and leadership skills (e.g. how to undertake a responsibility and how to manage it) had improved.
- A discussion that the Project Director had with the class teachers revealed (a) that they were satisfied with both the improvements their students had made and the efficacy of PF; and (b) that they felt that PF, if undertaken with proper preparation and training for reviewers, as it was done on the present project, could be a viable alternative to TF.
- The study even indicates that PF has at least three advantages over TF:
- In a PF situation, the face-to-face oral feedback sessions can take place in a friendly atmosphere, enhancing the scope for discussion and the consequent learning value. This is hardly likely in a TF situation; given the huge numbers, a one-to-one session itself is almost impossible.
- In oral feedback sessions, the reviewers can pay attention to each individual student, considering that each reviewer has a small number of students (not more than 9 in the ELT Centre’s study). This is not possible in a teacher-conducted class of 40-60.
- In a TF situation, students do not write with freedom because they are conscious of the fact that they will be read and corrected by the teacher. But, in a PF situation, the students know that their reader will be a peer which allows them to write with a sense of independence and identity.
In the ESL contexts where the learners are not able to make progress in their writing skills owing to either absence of feedback or inadequate feedback from their teachers, PF could be thought of as a possible alternative to TF. Whether it acts as a viable alternative or a poor one depends on several factors not the least of which is institutional culture. Given the disciplined environment at ALC, the availability of a substantial number of trainable students with cut-off-level skills in writing to act as peer reviewers, and the collegial atmosphere in the ELT Centre, it was possible to undertake the innovation with relative ease and produce successful results. In institutions which are disadvantaged in these respects, it may not be so easy to introduce PF and sustain it as a viable proposition. However, where TF is either non-existent or carried out in a ritualistic manner for want of time, PF is worth experimenting with.
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Zhang, S. (1995). Re-examining the affective advantage of peer feedback in the ESL writing class. Journal of Second Language Writing, 4/3: 209-22.
Ramanujam Parthasarathy, PhD, is Senior Professor of English and Director, ELT Centre, at Gudlavalleru Engineering College in Andhra Pradesh, India.